Among the flashy lighting and editing, black humour and telekinetic fury of 1978’s Carrie, Sissy Spacek’s performance cut through. As the bullied, ostracised small-town teenager Carrie White, Spacek shone in a turn that was vulnerable, honest and moving – it’s a little wonder that she and Piper Laurie, who played her toxic mother Margaret, both were nominated for Academy Awards.
Director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry) has a difficult act to follow in her new adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling 1974 novel, and while screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa updates the Lawrence D Cohen’s screenplay from the 1978 film to include mobile phones, the internet and YouTube, it can’t quite step out of the shadow left by Brian De Palma’s acclaimed retelling.
This time, it’s former Hit Girl Chloe Grace Moretz’s turn to play the meek outsider Carrie White, whose first menstruation in a school shower is both a fresh source of humiliation from her peers and also the beginning of her paranormal abilities. At home, mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) decides that her daughter’s period is a punishment from God, and promptly locks Carrie in the closet with a bleeding crucifix and a painting of Christ by Grunewald.
As Carrie struggles through her torment at home and school, she gradually becomes more aware of the nature of her newfound powers, while her enemies, led by ruthless bully Chris (Portia Doubleday) draw their plans against her.
Commendably, Peirce doesn’t rush her new version of King’s measured story. Allowing it to unfold like the steady drama it is, she gives the characters room to breathe and establish themselves. Judy Greer’s excellent as the well-meaning gym teacher Miss Desjardin, Julianne Moore is appropriately wild-eyed and batty as Margaret, and Ansel Elgort is perfectly charming as Carrie’s prom date, Tommy.
Above all, Chloe Grace Moretz holds the screen well in the central role, making her character by turns sympathetic and dangerous. She can’t quite muster the same sense of wounded desperation that Sissy Spacek brought to her interpretation, but her performance is still strong, especially in her scenes with Julianne Moore.
The real problem with this new version of Carrie is that it holds a surprising amount of reverence for Brian De Palma’s version – with entire scenes and some shots playing out almost identically to the 1978 film – even as Aguirre-Sacasa’s script sanitises it.
Spoiled school bully Chris and her boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) were certainly sadistic in De Palma’s film, but they were also quite entertaining to watch. John Travolta’s version of Billy implied that his cruelty sprang from his slack-jawed stupidity; here, Billy’s simply a sociopath, and less interesting as a result.
By contrast, Margaret’s formidable presence has been softened, her persona made less ferocious, while Carrie’s ultimate use of powers is rendered more focused and less indiscriminate. Couple this with a typical remake’s tendency to heavily state things that were only hinted at in the original – such as a water cooler exploding in an office, rather than an ashtray falling off a table, for example – and you’re left with a numb retread instead of a fresh presentation of a familiar story.
De Palma went for the pulp aspects of the book with a killer instinct, allowing his audience to revel in the inevitable pay-off and enjoy the film as both a heightened teen drama and popcorn-flinging horror flick at the same time. Peirce seems less willing to let her viewers off the hook, lacing her scenes of telekinetic destruction with a sense of explosive triumph but also tragic unease. There’s less of a sense of catharsis to this incarnation of Carrie, and more a sense of gloomy inevitability.
Although well acted and competently shot, Carrie feels like a predator with its claws removed. It’s still interesting to watch, but now lacks the ability to make an indelible mark on the memory.
Carrie is out on the 29th November in the UK.
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